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Europe can’t afford to loose Ukraine

It’s symbolic that on the 40th anniversary the Prague Spring in 1968 Russia, has followed the same imperial logic and sent tanks to Georgia, a tiny country in South Caucasus which dared to dream of joining the EU and NATO. The West, adored by the Georgians was taken by surprise, is struggling to find the right way to react. Russians responded to the western protests with familiar Soviet-style  rhetoric. It can be expected that Moscow’s next target will be Ukraine – more precisely, the Crimean peninsula. In this situation the West has no choice but to confront the “old” new face of Kremlin which has begun to regain what was lost at the sad time of  the 1990s “smuta” – Russia’s last period of economic and political transition.

Russia has a major problem with coming to terms with Ukraine’s choice of becoming a member of the family of Western democracies. Losing Ukraine is an overriding trauma – Kyievan Rus has always been the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox tradition. Moscow without Kyiv becomes an organism  lacking in spiritual essence. Its soul remains enshrined in the onion shaped golden copulas of churches on the hilly bank of the Dnepr. These are the same churches which the Soviets had once tried to brutally destroy. This proves that history likes paradoxes. The former KGB colonel, then President Vladimir Putin, pretends he believes in the same God of the Russian tsars…..  

Russia’s effort to regain control over Ukraine by promoting Victor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin candidate in the last presidential election, resulted in the Orange Revolution which put Kyiv on track to the West. Putin lost the first round, but he didn’t give up. Over the last few years he has tested new weapons: he has threatened to cut gas supplies to Ukraine, raised prices, supported anti-NATO and anti-EU propaganda and provoked incidents in the Crimea, the Autonomous Republic put under Ukrainian jurisdiction by a decree promulgated by  Nikita Khrushchev on February 19, 1954 (it is worth stressing that in the Ukrainian independence  referendum on December 1, 1991, 54.2 per cent of residents from Crimea and 57.1 per cent from Sevastopol voted in favour of Ukrainian independence).

Two weeks ago warships of Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is stationed in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol in Crimea, took part in the military operation in Georgia ( thereby putting Ukraine in a difficult political position). This annoyed President Victor Yuschenko, whose very good contacts with Mikhail Saakashvili, his Georgian counterpart are widely known. In response Yuschenko issued a decree requiring the fleet, based in Sevastopol, to give 72 hours’ notice of any ship movements in or out of the port. Russia ignored this. Ukraine’s foreign minister noted that “Russia should start, without delay, to make preparations for the withdrawal of its fleet in 2017”.  President Dmitry Medvedev immediately replied that Russia is ready to negotiate with Ukraine about the use of the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea, but will not let Kyiv dictate terms. Now Ukraine has started investigating claims that Russia has been distributing Russian passports to the inhabitants of Sevastopol, which immediately raised fears that Moscow, by encouraging separatist sentiments in the Crimea, plans to regain  control over this strategically important peninsula.  The same tactic was used by the Kremlin  in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, giving Russia an excuse for military intervention in Georgia under the umbrella of protecting the Russian minority. One scenario could include a range of means like a call for a regional referendum on secession from Ukraine and the installation in Crimea of a FSB controlled pro-Russian leadership which will, at some point in the future, ask for Moscow military support.

Recently,  a new political affaire broke out in Kyiv which shows how bitter the infighting at the top in Ukraine has become. Yuschenko’s secretariat has accused Yulia Tymoschenko, the  Ukrainian premier of  treason. The Princess of the Orange Revolution was supposed to have made a secret deal with Russia. It is said, that in return for the Kremlin’s backing in the forthcoming presidential election in 2009, Tymoschenko promised to drop  support for Georgia and postpone Ukraine’s NATO membership plans. Apparently, nearly 1 billion USD have already been allocated by Russia for the implementation of this plan.

The propaganda war has reached an unpredictably dangerous level. There is no doubt that the main front-line in this game played by Russia  cuts  across Ukraine. The confrontation could be tough and costly, and will test the mettle of  the EU. There is also no doubt that West must show more  determination in keeping Ukraine on its westward path because this is essential to a more secure and prosperous Europe. The West simply can’t afford to loose this chance. There is too much at stake, including the credibility of Western democracy.

Jan Pieklo
Director of Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation PAUCI, Warsaw & Kyiv